by Troy M. Olson and Carson Starkey
By no means am I saying that Democrats should throw the ’16 Presidential Election, I’m just making the argument for why losing wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Why it could speed up the rebuild efforts, and why they stand very little to gain from a 2016 victory because of historical factors, as well as contemporary political and election law factors.
You should always compete to win, no matter what. The reality is you cannot win them all and in the case of the Democratic Party the last six years, you cannot win half of them even. The following is a thought exercise that lays out the case for losing in 2016. The general gist of it: losing in 2016 is preferable to losing in 2020 and blowing a redistricting opportunity and the first real chance to begin rebuilding the Democratic Party.
Whether Bernie or Hillary wins the nomination, unless something drastically changes in the next nine months – very little will be accomplished with a third consecutive Democratic administration beyond the power of the executive order and commander-in-chief powers. We’ve seen in the Obama administration, who has issued fewer executive orders than his predecessor, how politically charged governing via executive order and via other explicit or implied constitutional powers can be. Even with the best of intentions, it is hard to avoid charges of an “Imperial Presidency.” Despite the partisan gridlock, complete ineptitude, and historically low approval ratings of Congress, it is always preferable to do the big things (and some of the small things) through the legislative branch, which is in theory, the most democratic branch of government under the Constitution. It is also better for the health of our Republic if the federal (and many states) legislative branch of government starts working a bit better again.
The President’s powers as commander-in-chief are vast and great, but are at their greatest when the country is at war, so it unlikely a President Hillary Clinton or President Sanders will be able to do much proactive good on this front. If a war of the size and mistaken purpose of Iraq or even Afghanistan materialized from 2017-21, the Democratic Party might as well fold up its tent because droves and droves of voters on the left would not turn out in 2020. However, it is unlikely either Democratic administration does that. More likely is a continuation of Obama’s foreign policy of retrenching and retooling. Getting out of pointless old conflicts, and avoiding new ones. A foreign policy led through the State Department rather than the Defense Department is inherently a reactive power, characterized as much by the Presidential powers you do not use as the ones you do.
Foreign policy has barely registered in the Democratic Primary so far, a testament to how well President Obama has scored in the field in comparison to his predecessors as well as a sign of how badly the base wants to move on from the era of perpetual engagement in costly, deadly, and abstract wars and conflicts. So that leaves the domestic agenda. Both Clinton and Sanders have certainly made some bold proposals. But guess what? Almost none of them have any chance of happening with the current make-up of Congress. And unless something changes, the current make-up of Congress will more or less be sizable GOP majorities in the House and anywhere from a 4 to 8 seat majority in the Senate. Currently, Democrats are at a 100-year low in terms of Congressional seats, Gubernatorial seats, and majorities in state legislatures nationwide. But we can change that right? Because demographics or something… Not exactly.
The only real opportunity to change this trend is in 2016. Currently generic polling via RCP shows a 1.0 Democratic advantage. That is not a good year if it stays the same or goes into advantage-GOP territory.
In 2014, when the GOP took back the Senate and made gains in the House, the aggregate polling average was a lead of 2.4% by election day, and it ended up being 5.7% in the final results. Democrats have become an overly urban party and run up the scores in big and mid-sized cities. That works well for nationwide Presidential Elections and statewide elections in states that have vast urban areas, but it does not work well for party building across all 50 states and 435 districts throughout the country. Through gerrymandering, voter ID laws in many red and purple states, and the usual midterm turnout backlash against the party in the White House, Democrats have not had the results to show for it outside of winning the White House twice. Pretty pathetic results for a party that has policy positions that are far more preferable to the American people than the GOP.
In 2010, when the GOP won the House back and made historic gains, they won the overall vote by 6.8 percent, underperforming aggregate polling that had them leading the generic ballot by 9.8 percent. Compare this to congressional elections where Democrats did well, in 2006 and 2008, the Democrats won 7.9 and 10.7 percent of the overall congressional vote respectfully, off of aggregate polling that showed them up 11.5 and 9.0 percent. 2006 and 2008 were considered “wave” election years in the Democrats favor while the 2010 and 2014 midterms were generally considered “wave” election years in the Republicans favor. How many seats were gained/lost in those waves? Democrats gained 33 House seats and 6 Senate seats to take back Congress in 2006 and gained 28 more House seats and 8 Senate seats in 2008. Keep these numbers in mind because even though the GOP did not win the overall congressional vote by the same margins in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, they ended up winning more seats. In 2010, the GOP gained a whopping 63 House seats and 6 Senate seats while winning the vote by 6.8 percent. In 2014, the GOP gained 13 House seats and 9 Senate seats. It is important to note that in 2014, there were only so many more House seats they could have gained before they were reaching into un-winnable urban and entrenched incumbent seats. This was all accomplished off of a 5.7 percent overall congressional vote margin.
The moral of this story is that Republicans are strategically spread throughout districts to maximize their vote totals and the Democrats are not. In nearly every sizable state, rural districts are undersized congressional districts and urban seats are oversized congressional districts. Only certain suburban areas like Long Island are ideally sized via the U.S. Census. The politics of not only Voter I.D. in too many states and the politics of gerrymandering have put up considerable electoral obstacles for the Democratic Party.
2006 proves the trite “Democrats do not show up in midterm elections” statement to be a myth. History shows Democrats show up quite a bit by midterm standards, especially if George W. Bush is President and the Iraq War is going poorly. What is more accurate about midterm elections are these three factors:
- Republicans also do not show up in midterm elections like they do in Presidential Elections. Both parties have the midterm drop-off problem.
- The Political Party that does not hold the White House is going to show up more often in midterm elections.
- Democrats, in the last few decades have slightly more voters that are no-shows at midterms compared to the GOP. But this turnout problem is irrelevant if the GOP holds the White House, because the party that does not hold the White House is more energized historically in midterm elections.
Which brings me back to the “Case for Losing in 2016.” If Hillary Clinton wins, and this is about a 50/50 proposition in November, it will be a close win and unlikely to have large coattails. 2018 will not be a good year either for most down-ballot races. One, the midterm backlash against the party that holds the White House. Two, a third straight Democratic administration will further energize the GOP base. Three, see the historic nature of Barack Obama’s Presidency, swap it out for the historic nature of Hillary Clinton’s Presidency, and then check out the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. A third consecutive midterm disaster for the Democrats will sink the party to even lower lows. But wait… we turn out in Presidential years though so 2020 will be a good year! Not exactly.
Only once since the “Era of Good Feelings” has the United States elected the same political party to the White House for more than three consecutive terms. From 1932 to 1948 – Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman combined for five consecutive terms. This is an exception to the historical trend, brought on by major events like the Great Depression and World War II, which remade American life in nearly every conceivable way. While I think a major event like a deep recession or even a depression is possible in the next decade, a World War is less likely. If there is a war, it is more likely to resemble Iraq, which will be a political disaster for Hillary Clinton. Any war is likely to be smaller in comparison, and do Clinton more harm than good as she seeks re-election in 2020.
The far more likely scenario (with all due respect to Carson Starkey and the Iran War of 2017 to 2029), a recession in the economy-would sink the party to new lows I cannot even contemplate. But surely a recession is impossible, we just had one! The Great Recession of 2007-2009 occurred just 6-7 years after the previous one, which was more mild in comparison. While it is hard to imagine it due to Gilded Age levels of economic inequality, the stock market and labor markets have been gaining for years now. Business cycles are going to happen no matter what policies governments pursue. Where governments do have influence is mitigating the worst effects of a slow down in the economy. History tells us that a recession is far more likely during the 2017-21 Presidential administration than at any time after that. It is possible that it will be mild, but as I will go into in a later article, I fear that it will be another deep one. Very few meaningful changes in policy have been made since 2007-09, Dodd-Frank is an incredibly mild financial reform law, “too big too fail” is still likely to be the policy of the U.S. Government, and the 2nd largest generation in American history is lining up to cash in their 401k’s before they lose too much value. The mere mention of any recession and loss in value will deepen the effects of the recession further and the “Great Boomer 401k Cash-In” of circa 2019 or 2020 will all but guarantee a one-term Presidency for whoever wins the 2016 Presidential Election. I remember back in 2007, a wise man named Justin Norris said that whoever wins the 2008 Presidential Election will be a two-term President. Political economics and more importantly, history is strongly pointing toward the opposite for the 2016 winner.
Party-building is far easier to do as the opposition party. Disastrous policy preferences and outcomes by the ruling party such as the Iraq War and short-sighted tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires that turn surpluses into deficits has a way of turning some instinctively conservative voters into temporary Democrats. 2020 is also a redistricting year, and blowing the chance to have a good turnout and a solid coattails election will not just hurt the Democratic Party for that election, but it will also put it at a further disadvantage for every election throughout the 2020’s. We are already at a disadvantage, there is no need to double down on it.
Losing sooner rather than later will also give Millennials and Gen-X pols a better argument to primary and changeover the Democratic Boomer establishment. If it is true that 2016 is the Millennial version of the Boomers’ 1968 “get clean for Gene” revolt, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Lose in ’16, or lose even worse after winning and barely accomplishing anything in ’20. Like pulling off duct tape, I’d rather the inevitable happen sooner, so a better Democratic Party can emerge.
As mentioned at the outset, this is a thought experiment, play to win. So lets consider the reasons against briefly.
1. The Supreme Court.
2. A policy and political return of the #ForeverWar Consensus. And a potential War against Iran.
3. Preservation of the Obama-era policy legacy (especially the ACA)
4. More Rounds of Tax Cuts for Millionaires and Billionaires will be hard to swallow.
Why These Four Reasons May Not Come Into Play:
The Supreme Court
From Bush’s 2nd term through Obama’s 1st term, there were 4 Supreme Court Justices appointed (Chief Justice Roberts, Alito, Sotomayer, and Kagan), while it is very possible one of the nine Justice slots will open up, it’s unlikely that more than one will and not impossible that zero Justices will need to be appointed from Jan 20th of 2017 to 2021.
Return of the #ForeverWar Consensus
Hillary’s rather hawkish views anyway and inability to have any sort of domestic agenda with no congressional majorities leave only Foreign Policy open to make the sort of legacy that all Presidents want to leave. If Iran welches on the Deal, or there is another Paris-type attack, ISIS in Syria, Iraq, or an increasingly aggressive Russia, we may see a version of the return of the #ForeverWar Consensus anyway.
Also, the preferences of the American people are the best check on this possibility to begin with, no matter who sits in the Oval Office. It is vitally important that the American people stay vigilant and stand up earlier and often this time, if the banging on the “War Drums of Choice” return.
The Obama Policy Legacy
Even with completely GOP control of all levels and branches of Gov’t, a simple repeal of the ACA would not be politically popular or viable if not replaced with an alternative. What is likely to happen is some version of a partial repeal or a “repeal and replace.” Essentially, keeping the most popular parts of the ACA like “pre-existing conditions” while repealing the unpopular parts like the “individual mandate.” The bone thrown to hardcore conservatives, especially in deep red states or states under complete GOP control will be a repeal of the Medicaid expansion under the ACA.
But wouldn’t the ACA be unworkable without the mandate? Probably. But the effects of that would take a little bit of time and give them some political cover. Always playing in the GOP’s favor is the completely ineptitude and ineffectualness in the messaging and framing the debate arms of the establishment of the Democratic Party.
You got me there. This will happen and it won’t be a good thing. A President Hillary or Bernie could certainly veto such cuts until the end of time, but a President Rubio will likely be W. Bush on steroids. Imagine the tax cut Martin Shkreli will get? Welcome to the 2nd “Roaring Twenties” folks, it’s going to be a bumpy road. They will certainly be a roaring decade if you are a shill for the Republican Party, an advocate for book burning, reactionary and movement conservative ideologies, or are just incredibly rich. For everyone else, buckle up.
The Bottom Line:
What is the major plus side to all of this? For every historical action, there is a reaction. Party-building, true 21st century-style, party-building can begin again in the Democratic Party, within its establishment, and among the activist progressive base. Some of it will be new school and some of it will be a return to what is old, tried, and true.
A combination of looking in the mirror and doing some soul searching, as well as digging down deeper and fighting harder. But I see it as the only way forward for the Democratic Party at this point.
Chief Wiggum said it best during the great period of the “Simpsons“: “This is gonna get worse, before it gets better.”